“Lips,” Constance Congdon’s play about a female U.S. president feigning an extramarital lesbian affair to advance the gay rights agenda, is not an easy one to pin down. Though technically a comedy, it’s hard to imagine anyone finding it particularly funny. The far-fetched premise would seem to disqualify it from being a drama, though the tone is surprisingly serious. And for all the work’s political pretensions, it ultimately treats its potentially explosive subject as though it were fodder for a daytime soap. The most accurate statement one could make would be to call it a bad Caryl Churchill play — but better perhaps to leave off the categorizations and simply offer condolences to director Greg Leaming, whose fast-paced production couldn’t possibly be fast enough.
The trouble isn’t so much the play’s outlandish conceit, but Congdon’s hamfisted execution. In these post-Monica Lewinsky days, nothing can be ruled out in terms of Beltway behavior — though the playwright clearly doesn’t possess Ken Starr’s ability to dramatize the hitherto unthinkable with fanatical , not to say fetishistic, conviction.
Andy (Stephen Barker Turner), a government aide, negotiates a deal with Rachel (Robin Morse), who’s been serving prison time for a computer scam. In exchange for her early release, she agrees to serve as kind of sexual spy. Her mission entails not only keeping tabs on the leader of the free world, but eventually becoming the object of her homoerotic desire.
As it turns out, President Joni (Lizbeth Mackay) and Andy are in cahoots — they’ve cooked up this little scam to bring down once and for all the religious right (the details of this plot wisely are kept sketchy). Andy’s motivation is made somewhat more complex by the revelation that Rachel was once his lover and that the child she is fighting to regain custody of may be his.
If only the half-baked lesbian machinations were treated with the hilarious insouciance they deserve. Instead, Congdon feebly attempts to make the fantasy seem realistic. But she ignores the logistical challenges of White House assignations (how can you after the endless parsing of President Clinton’s secretary Betty Currie’s testimony?) and her characters remain at the mercy of an overly manipulative dramatic imagination.
Only when Rachel and Joni attempt to join in a mass baptismal ceremony at a conservative church does the action reach truly farcical heights. But that brief comic scene, in which the hand-holding lovers provoke a hurricane of controversy , is nearly lost in the increasingly gratuitous political shenanigans, which have about as much to do with the struggle for gay and lesbian rights as Andy’s boring paternity saga.
Leaming’s cast hurries things along without managing to flesh out their two-dimensional characters. Turner makes a rather wooden Andy — he’s a nice guy, but even his ulterior motives are superficial.
As Rachel, Morse never seems as alluringly street-smart as she’s supposed to be. Nor is it clear why everyone instantly falls in love with her. Mackay has the perfect presidential hairdo, though not even her stately appearance can redeem her ridiculous role.
It’s hard to fathom why Primary Stages elected to produce a script that seems better suited to one of the play-reading festivals taking place this spring. Then again, cramped upstairs on the theater’s tiny second stage, the production feels like an intensive workshop of an extremely premature comedy.